Given our national obsession with property prices, Tim Walker’s novel is bound to hit a nerve. His fictional couple, the Manvilles, bought their large north London home at a knock-down price in the 1990s, and it became the key to two aspects of their family life. Jerry, a successful advertising executive, undertook all the original plumbing, electrical and redecoration work; Pen devised a series of popular children’s books, The House on the Hill, whose “cheeky brat with the ridiculous schemes” is modelled on, and named after, her real-life son Conrad: 15 years on, they have done a loft conversion, and divorced.
The property dream becomes a nightmare, which gradually draws all four Manvilles back into its orbit. Pen, now living in France, is refusing to sell. Jerry finds the house invaded by squatters. Trapped by his alter ego, Conrad can’t but grow up into “Conrad”, forever “neurotic, semi-rational and susceptible to outrageous flights of fancy”. Further from home, his sister Isobel entertains herself in Dubai by managing an online farm, and spending real money on fantasy tractors. She can form “lasting connections” with other players, but not her own children or her banker husband.
Almost all of us fall in love with homes which are never as real as the dreams we have about them, and the parallels between this and our children would be fruitful to explore. Yet more plot and finer writing are needed to forge the satirical state-of-the-nation novel which Completion could so nearly be.
Walker’s women characters are what really let him down. Pen’s move to France seems a weakening of the main themes, and her affair with Bruno the handyman is a clichéd extra to her second marriage. Isobel’s obsession with her online life makes her wholly unprepossessing – at least until her friend, Shauna, runs foul of the law in Dubai, and she is forced to confront her own selfishness. The father and son, on the other hand, are well-drawn. If the Manvilles’ preoccupations are a little too familiar, Jerry is sufficiently obnoxious in his battles with the young squatters to raise a wry smile. Completion is an entertaining debut about the way the property obsession has blinded many to the real value of people and families. If it doesn’t fully engage the imagination, it’s probably because this characteristic is closer to tragedy than comedy.
Amanda Craig’s six novels include ‘A Vicious Circle’ and ‘Hearts & Minds’, all are published by Abacus